As much as we are all missing live sport, I think the biggest void at the moment is that we are missing the rituals of watching. Particularly who we watch it with.
Family, groups of mates, work colleagues, sometimes complete strangers. The whole experience – be it on TV or inside the stadium – was all about who we were with.
As a football commentator the main thing I hope for at a game is for it to be dramatic and exciting. An entertaining match makes my job much easier.
This is the main difference between watching for my job and doing so as a fan. Professionally speaking it doesn’t really matter which team wins.
However, in the summer of 2014, I got an insight into the true agony of not wanting – but needing – a team to win.
I was in Fortaleza working at the World Cup in Brazil. The hosts were playing Chile in the second round and our guide Rubens invited me to attend a family party to watch the match.
I gratefully accepted. This was a chance to watch a Brazil game at a Brazilian family home. Brilliant.
The house belonged to Rubens’ in-laws. We drove into a high-walled compound. The whole extended family were there. Outdoor pool and outdoor kitchen/dining area. Great setup.
As the foreign guest I was given VIP status and could tell that they were providing me with the best cuts of meat and the biggest portions. Beers flowed, lots of fun and laughter.
Then the game started. Chit-chat was lowered. Everyone, young and old, concentrating on the match.
The patriarch of the family explained that he was wearing his lucky hat. He had been a warm and generous host when we arrived but now he zoned out from everyone else and stared intently at the screen.
Brazil scored inside 20 minutes. Looked like an own goal to me, but David Luiz was widely credited around the table as having flicked it. I was up on my feet cheering with the rest of them. Glasses and cans clinked. Brazil were on their way to the World Cup semi-final on home soil.
Before glasses could be refilled, Chile scored. Alexis Sanchez with a screamer.
Oh well, I thought, that dampens the mood a bit, but y’know, let’s have another beer and see how it goes. However, I was misjudging the mood. This wasn’t just a setback, this was a catastrophe.
The smiles around the table were gone. Anger was howled at the TV whenever a Brazil attack broke down.
The patriarch with the lucky hat got up and walked into the house. It was half-time before I noticed he had not returned. I asked Rubens: “Where has the old guy gone? Is he OK?”
“He can’t watch any more,” came the reply. “He’s gone inside to listen on the radio.”
Ten minutes into the second half and Hulk scored for Brazil.
We were all up on our feet again, I was getting hugs and kisses. The patriarch ran back out of the house towards us. Phew. This day might end up being OK after all.
Amid all the celebrations it took a moment to realise that Hulk’s goal had been, quite harshly, disallowed for handball. The feel good vibes were gone again. But this time it turned weird.
The old guy began speaking coldly, directly at me.
I had no idea what he was saying in Portuguese and nervously glanced at Rubens to help me out. “He… he wants you to take off your shoes.”
“Just do it, take off your shoes.”
I was only wearing sandals so I kicked them off and reached down to lift them up.
The patriarch gestured not to do that and barked something different at me in Portuguese.
“He wants you to lift your feet up so he can see them,” said Rubens.
Everyone around the large table was looking at me. I lifted one foot up and hovered it over the table. Surely this sombre mood was just the setup to a joke? But no, the faces remained deadly serious.
The patriarch reached out and touched the sole of my foot.
As soon as his finger touched my skin he jumped up and started shouting more stuff at me.
I didn’t know what was happening, but it was not good.
Rubens wasn’t jumping in to translate now, he was talking rapidly to his father-in-law.
Both men were on their feet by this stage. Exasperated voices raised.
In the background the game went on.
The patriarch stopped talking to Rubens and was back pointing fingers in my direction and spit-firing unintelligible words at me.
He turned and stormed back into the house. I felt the stares of the whole family burning down on me.
Rubens took a deep breath. “He says he you have cold feet.”
“What? What do you mean ‘cold feet’?”
Rubens explained: “It means he thinks you have brought bad luck.”
What follows is unbearably stressful.
The game went into extra time. The old man had not returned. One of his daughters went into the house and loud voices could be heard. She came back and threw angry eyes at me.
I wanted to leave. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know where we were, way out in the sticks.
All I could do was stare at the screen. I was genuinely afraid to make eye contact with anyone.
If this was Ireland playing at the World Cup I would not be any more desperate for them to score. I was suddenly Brazil’s biggest fan.
The next half an hour was agony. Brazil were playing terribly.
The ref’s whistle ended extra time – penalties.
Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar saved the first two Chile spot-kicks. I was up on my feet roaring his name. I’d decided my next child would be named Julio. Please… please….
Then Willian missed for Brazil but they still had the advantage.
Then Hulk missed too. A hollow opened up at the base of my stomach. I had never felt like this before. I was scanning the high walls looking for an emergency exit. There was barbed wire all around the top of the perimeter of the garden.
Four penalties taken each and it was 2-2. Effectively sudden death.
Up stepped Neymar for Brazil. My mouth was dry.
Gonzalo Jara had to score or Chile were out.
He hit the inside of the post!
Eruption. I was showered in beer. Then hugs. The patriarch ran out of the house and planted slobbery kisses on my face.
I was off the hook. Me and my cold feet had survived.
I took a photo on my phone. Of Rubens, his girlfriend and her dad.
Here he is in his “lucky hat”.
Of course my cold feet did catch up with that Brazil team in the end. They were annihilated by Germany in the semi-final. However by then I had skipped town. I haven’t shown my face or feet in Fortaleza since.